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Opinion - Replace current exams with professional school-based assessments

2021-04-12  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Replace current exams with professional school-based assessments
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Examinations in education have been around since time immemorial. The main question, however, is, whose interests do exams serve? Worldwide, exams serve multiple purposes. Many people including professional educators believe that exams are a powerful tool for assessing what learners learnt in their subjects. Supporters of exams claim that this form of assessment is good at showing what part of the lesson learners were most interested in and can remember. Yet, others claim that exams help teachers and learners to identify and understand their strengths and weaknesses, and thus help teachers decide where more attention in class may be needed when teaching. 

Moreover, a general belief exists that exams help schools to monitor the progress and effectiveness of classes, learners and teachers and their subjects. Finally, some claim that exams help school administrators to introduce required improvements within their schools, colleges or universities based on learners’ grades. Evidently, exams serve the needs of many stakeholders: learners, parents, teachers, policymakers, education administrators, and so on.

Similar purposes of exams apply to Namibia, except that the Namibian education system continues to use exams to mould learners to follow certain economic, political or social agendas. Well-documented examples confirm that Namibia’s education system can be one of the meccas of the exams approach. One of the central aims of education in Namibia is to improve learners’ abilities to learn. Decades ago, the paradigm shift to learner-centred teaching was premised on the fact that learners would be given more opportunities to develop independent learning skills and take responsibility for their own learning. The shift also meant that teachers would change their teaching practices and adopt alternative assessment approaches. Unfortunately, this paradigm shift did not take root in the country’s education system. Today, Namibia runs an examination driven education system. For instance, school authorities, including colleges and universities across Namibia use exams to determine learners’ knowledge and competencies. This means that high-stakes exams drive classroom teaching and learning across the school systems. The practice is based on the popular belief that exams provide an authentic outcome of learners› academic achievements and progress. 

Unfortunately, as institutions of learning continue to trade exam marks, many learners across the education system continue to suffer from a skills deficit syndrome. Additionally, high-stakes exams continue to increase learner dropout rates, particularly among marginalised rural and sub-urban learner populations. The widespread exam pandemic continues to encourage teachers to adopt transmission teaching, reinforcing low self-esteem of lower-achieving learners. Also, the damaging effects of exams have serious implications for what learners learn today and whether they will become the lifelong learners of tomorrow. Moreover, the pressures of exams might be contributing to more tragic consequences such as anxiety, stress, and suicide among learners. The sum of this evidence leads to two conclusions.

First, there is no doubt that exams, as practised in Namibia, are mainly concerned with maintaining the so-called ‘reputation of the system’ at the expense of learners’ critical thinking. However, the narrative that exams promote the integrity of the national education system is false. Even more serious the notion that exams provide evidence of the quality of the school system is erroneous in practice. This may be an overstatement, but the current obsession with exams lacks evidence in theory and practice. Second, the exam disease Namibia suffers from urgently needs a cure. While the exam marks of few urban schools are high up on the annual league tables, many rural schools continue to pay a heavy price in many ways. In financial and resource terms, exams continue to inflict enormous administrative costs on Namibia’s education system. Also, the costs on human happiness are enormous. 

Therefore, education authorities need to redefine the country’s education process. Such a move is necessary if Namibia wants to respond to the valued skills of the 21st-century world economic order. The current education system purports to promote learning. If this perspective is correct, education authorities should begin to advocate for assessment procedures that address the primary purposes of schooling that truly support active learning and critical thinking. And that can only be done through a genuine transformation that recognises that learning involves the heart and soul as well as the head and mind of learners. 

Education authorities need to realise that learners of all ages are human beings with brains, experiences, attitudes, and feelings. High-stakes exams alone is not a suitable tool that can stimulate their social, psychological and emotional processes. We should not forget that numerous independent and government-commissioned studies since 1990 have consistently found that Namibia lacks personnel in key skill areas required to engineer the country’s knowledge economy agenda. One could say that Namibia’s exam system is a perfect dud, which continues to sabotage the country’s development efforts. Apart from incurring enormous administration costs, exams unnecessarily exacerbate teacher workload. Teachers spend their time and efforts on preparing multiple-choice items instead of building learners’ confidence and planning for authentic learning. Moreover, the exam system has not improved Namibia’s reputation; it has instead multiplied unfairness, especially for low-income rural learners. Further, the system continues to deny schools the true language of 21st-century learning for all learners, especially learners with disabilities and those from disadvantaged families. What then is the alternative to the exam system?

The remedy for the exam disease is the professional school-based assessment (SBA). And here is why and how it works. The SBA system gives teachers greater responsibility to design quality assessments for three reasons. One, teachers know how to align assessments to the curriculum learning outcomes. Two, teachers are the most qualified individuals to assess their learners. And three, teachers are the only people who have a better understanding of the context of the subjects they teach. So, the basic tenets of SBA are teacher trust and professionalism. If education authorities believe that their teachers are academically and professionally competent, then allow them to exercise their professional judgement on how they align various teaching methods to promote learning and assess learners’ learning outcomes. 

The SBA system has numerous strengths compared to the current high-stakes exam system. One, it promotes school standards, not nationwide information. The act of teaching and learning takes place at the school level and not at some central office in the capital city. Two, the system transforms the classroom teaching and learning process that benefits learners most. Clearly, children go to school to learn. The western definition of a school is an institution that provides learning spaces for learners to learn under the tutelage of teachers. Three, the SBA system clearly shows what learners have learnt during a specific school year. Four marks obtained through the SBA system reflect what the learners have authentically learnt, instead of what they were supposed to be learning. Five, the system uses a variety of teaching approaches and assessment techniques that have a direct effect on the assessment outcomes.

In the final analysis, the current high-stakes exam system has overstayed its welcome and requires replacement. Education authorities in Namibia must consider introducing the SBA system, which promotes 21st-century teaching and learning perspectives. What do you think?  

2021-04-12  Staff Reporter

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